Henry Kissinger, Elliott Abrams, and the Rot of American Foreign Policy

Henry Kissinger, Elliott Abrams, and the Rot of American Foreign Policy

Henry Kissinger, Elliott Abrams, and the Rot of American Foreign Policy

Our bipartisan elite is always willing to forgive war crimes by its made men.


The myth of the Mafia, immortalized in countless gangster movies, is that they protect their own. As the legend goes, once you’re a fully pledged member of La Cosa Nostra—a “made man,” in common parlance—you enjoy the special impunity of a club that values loyalty above all. This rosy view of organized crime is of course pure fantasy: From actual court cases involving gangsters, it seems they are exceptionally quick to rat each other out to avoid jail time.

But there is one group of shadowy miscreants that do operate under a code of omertà designed to ensure that almost all misdeeds will be forgiven, forgotten, and shielded from punishment: the American foreign policy establishment. Once you’re an accredited member of the cozy club of Washington policy warlords, you need never worry about having to face the consequences of your actions. Perhaps the only major exceptions to this rule are those who break the code of silence and let the public in on the dirty deeds of the ruling class—as the late Daniel Ellsberg did with the release of the Pentagon Papers. For that unpardonable crime, the price is ostracism and threats of jail.

Ellsberg’s great foe Henry Kissinger offers the more typical pattern. Kissinger was recently feted at New York’s Public Library, in an event so private that no guest list was posted. But standing outside the library, reporter Jonathan Guyer got a glimpse of a stellar constellation of the political and economic upper crust, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, former Treasury secretary Larry Summers, former representative Jane Harman, tech billionaire Eric Schmidt. USAID administrator Samantha Powers was also there to raise a toast to Kissinger. This is perhaps the best example of elite coziness since, as Guyer notes, in her 2002 book “A Problem From Hell”: America in the Age of Genocide, Powers detailed both Kissinger’s sins of commission (the carpet bombing of Cambodia) and omission (turning a blind eye to the murder of a million Bengalis killed by America’s allies in the Pakistani military).

In their eagerness to share a birthday cake with the centenarian war criminal, Powers and her ilk conveniently forgot about all the spots on the globe soaked in blood by the wars and coups Kissinger fomented: in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, and Bangladesh—among other places.

Although less famous than Kissinger, Elliott Abrams is another prime example of the special licence enjoyed by national security mavens. On Monday, the Biden administration announced that it was appointing Abrams to the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. This is an astonishing development given Abrams’s sordid history of deception, criminality, and promotion of human rights abuses.

During the 1980s, Abrams served under the Reagan administration as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs—at 33, the youngest person ever to hold that post. Since at that point Abrams’s accomplishments didn’t extend much beyond a few book reviews for Commentary—the neoconservative organ whose editor, Norman Podhoretz, happened to be Abrams’s father-in-law—the appointment itself was grotesque, and soon made worse as it became evident that his main job was whitewashing war crimes by American allies.

As Eric Alterman noted in a 2013 column in The Nation, Abrams

repeatedly and purposely misled Congress about the government’s involvement with the death-squad-riddled Salvadoran military, the Nicaraguan Contra counter-revolutionaries and other Central American mass murderers. He whitewashed their massacres as well as the abuses of the Argentinean junta (who were kidnapping babies at the time and selling them) and the genocidal Guatemalan regime of Gen. Efrían Ríos Montt…. Abrams did all this while casting aspersions on the motives of journalists and human rights workers who sought to tell the truth about these crimes.

Montt was later found guilty of crimes against humanity, a decision overturned by a judge. He was facing a new trial when he died in 2018.

Abrams was a key player in the Iran-Contra scandal, which led in 1991 to his pleading guilty of two counts of withholding information from Congress. The fact that he was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush in 1992 is an even bigger scandal, since the absolution was clearly a reward for being a good soldier and protecting his superiors in the Reagan administration. In Mafia terms, Abrams had kept omertà and was rewarded by the boss of the bosses.

In a society where the rule of law counted, Abrams’s 1991 conviction would have been the end of his government career. After all, a public official lying to Congress is in serious breach of the principle of democratic control over the government.

But far from being shunned, Abrams seems to have only been rewarded for deceiving elected officials.

As political scientist Stephen M. Walt noted in his book The Hell of Good Intentions, “The checkered career of Elliott Abrams is if anything more disturbing for those who believe that officials should be accountable and advancement should be based on merit” since “his earlier misconduct did not stop George W. Bush from appointing him to a senior position on the National Security Council, focusing on the Middle East.”

Under the younger Bush, Abrams continued the blunderbuss viciousness that characterised his career during the presidencies of Reagan and the elder Bush. As Walt recounts:

Then, after failing to anticipate Hamas’s victory in the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, Abrams helped foment an abortive armed coup in Gaza by Mohammed Dahlan, a member of the rival Palestinian faction Fatah. This harebrained ploy backfired completely: Hamas soon learned of the scheme and struck first, easily routing Dahlan’s forces and expelling Fatah from Gaza. Instead of crippling Hamas, Abrams’s machinations left it in full control of the area.

In 2009, Abrams was made a senior fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). In 2013, he used that prestigious perch to dishonestly smear as an anti-Semite former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, then nominated by Barack Obama to be secretary of defense. Abrams’s behavior was so despicable he was disavowed by CFR president Richard Haass, normally an establishment milquetoast.

Under the Trump administration, Abrams served as special representative for Venezuela and for Iran. In those posts, he pushed wacky coup attempts in Venezuela and subverted any move toward diplomatic engagement with Iran.

Over more than four decades, the career of Elliott Abrams has been a moral and policy disaster. So why is he being rewarded by a plum position yet again—this time by a Democratic president? When Joe Biden was a senator, Abrams lied to Congress. When Joe Biden was vice president, Abrams lied to undermine Barack Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary. By rewarding Abrams now, Biden is showing how weak he is in the face of an impudent and lawless national security elite.

The United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy is by law mandated to be bipartisan, and there is nothing Joe Biden loves more than a display of bipartisan comity. But in this case he’s picked a Republican who has nothing but contempt for not just Democrats but democracy itself.

The Abrams appointment is symptomatic of a larger problem with Biden’s foreign policy. When Biden ran for president, he promised that “human rights will be the center of our foreign policy.” As Matt Duss, former foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, documented in a recent article for The New Republic, Biden has systematically walked away from that promise by cozying up to autocrats in Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and India as well as giving tacit approval to the Israeli government’s serial violations of international law.

Biden has reverted to the standard crackpot realism and hypocrisy of the foreign policy blob: the view that human rights are to be used only as a cudgel against America’s rivals and never applied to the United States itself or its allies. This is the default position of the national security state. To carry out this policy, you need hardened and amoral cynics like Kissinger and Abrams. No wonder they continue to be celebrated in Joe Biden’s Washington.

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